Finding resilience during pancreatic cancer

Leanne Pierce was living a great life—a loving husband, a rewarding job, and two active young sons—when vague symptoms, including night sweats, acid reflux, a cough, and a lingering fever, brought her to her primary care doctor a few days before her 45th birthday. After being tested for various viral illnesses, an emergency room doctor discovered she had pancreatic cancer, stage IV, with spots present throughout her liver.

“We were devasted,” Leanne says. “Everything we knew said this disease was so aggressive, and it was surreal for this to be happening to us.”

After an initial consultation in her home state of Rhode Island, Leanne sought a second opinion at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute from Nadine McCleary, MD, MPH. She was seen the next day and never looked back.

Within one week, Leanne began an aggressive combination chemotherapy, with four to six hours of treatment one day every other week. After chemo, she would go home with a medicine pump attached to her port for another 46 hours, and then return to Boston for it to be removed and to receive hydration. In between treatments, she also occasionally returned to Boston to help manage her side effects. Though the days were grueling, Leanne found comfort in her care team, particularly her physician assistant, Kathleen, and her lead nurse, Lisa.  

“Everyone at Dana-Farber has a specific role to play: Dr. McCleary kept me focused and on track, Kathleen listened to my side effects and coordinated my care, and the chemo nurses listened to everything going on and were so caring in every way,” Leanne recalls.

While her pancreatic cancer symptoms vanished as soon as she started treatment, chemo side effects kept Leanne and her care team on their toes, making sure she stayed hydrated and connecting her with a Dana-Farber nutritionist, Hannah Dalpiaz, to talk about what was going on and how to manage gastrointestinal side effects from treatment. She also met with hematology, who helped monitor her blood counts and gave her platelet boosters to make sure her platelet levels remained high enough to continue treatment.

“Every time Dr. McCleary would set me up for a consultation with someone else at Dana-Farber, something magical would happen,” Leanne says. “I never had to skip a treatment because all of my side effects were managed. I don’t know if that would have happened if I were somewhere else. Dana-Farber’s willingness to think outside the box when it came to my treatment was a huge factor for us.”

Although side effects required some adjustments, the chemo was working: After 18 months of treatment, Leanne’s tumors completely shrunk, except one pesky spot on her liver. Upon further examination, it was discovered to not be cancerous and after a few more treatments, much discussion with her family and care team, and a final scan, Leanne came off active treatment in June 2020.

“We would say in the beginning that if we were offered a treatment break, we wouldn’t take it and we’d keep going, because this cancer is so aggressive,” Leanne says. “But Dr. McCleary could not see active cancer anymore and there was no benefit to continue active treatment, so we decided to try it.”

When she stopped treatment, she told her kids she didn’t know how long it would last—two weeks, two months, two years—but then spring turned into fall, then into winter, and her cancer has stayed at bay.

Leanne credits her husband, Kevin, for helping her stay in the present and not worry too much about the future, and with keeping life as normal as possible for their two kids, now 10 and 12.

“Very early on, we made a conscious decision to focus on what is happening, instead of what could happen,” explains Kevin.

“We had—and still have—a very busy life, with work, the kids’ school, and our sons playing hockey and baseball,” Leanne says. “Besides seeing me go through cancer and the effects of treatment, the kids have seen minimal change in their lives. When we told them about my cancer, we told them we just needed their help in supporting us, and they came through 20-fold by making me laugh and keeping me focused throughout this experience.”

Kevin was with Leanne at nearly all of her appointments, but her parents, brother, and countless friends stepped up to fill the gaps and be there when he couldn’t, to help out with school or sports drop-offs, or just be there to give a hug or an ear to listen.

While they don’t know what the future holds, they are now hopeful. Leanne and Kevin are proud of how they and their family have weathered this storm, and they hope this experience has instilled resilience and perspective in their young kids. “They’ve seen us go through such challenges,” Leanne says. “I hope this shows them they can overcome obstacles and how important time spent with family and friends truly is.”